Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Bordertowns: Chapter 6

The next evening it was nearing dusk when Ian left Pembina, headed for home. Just ahead of him on the trail to the river was a heavily dressed youth. The youngster turned to glance back upon hearing the crunching steps of his horse. It was no boy; it was Susan.

"Susan! What are you doing here?" Ian dropped from the saddle alongside her. She seemed startled momentarily, and then recognized him.

"Are you all right? I didn't mean to frighten you."

"I'm on my way home. I thought you knew that I worked at Geroux's Hotel when school was over."

"Do you mind if I walk with you? I've wanted to talk to you."

She looked at him intently. Why should she deny her feelings? "I've been thinking about you, too." Timidly she approached him, her gloved fingers trembling as they touched his chest.

He leaned toward her, clasping her arms gently at the elbows, pulling her tightly to him. As she lifted her head, his lips contacted hers. She found herself clinging to him fiercely.

Separating slowly, after a long moment, Ian exploded, "Honest Susan! I've wanted to kiss you ever since that first night I saw you."

She could detect the urgency in his voice. "I wondered if we would ever have a chance to be alone together. Pete and my family watch me like hawks; they don't realize I've grown up."

"Well, nearly. Pete tells me you're sixteen."

"Mother was only seventeen when I was born. She and Joseph weren't married until I was six. I believe our priest shamed them into that. Joseph isn't my true father; Mother never talks about him. I wonder about Pete. He and Mom act strange at times when Pa isn't around, the way they look at each other." She backed away and looked up at Ian intently. Then she added in a troubled voice, "Ian, I'm part Indian. If it makes any difference to you, tell me now."

Ian stepped forward and enclosed her cheeks tenderly. "Not a darn bit!"

She pleaded for honesty. "Your folks and a lot of your friends might object. Take our sheriff, Charley Brown. He and Marguerite are lovers, yet he hasn't married her. If he weren’t the law, people would shun him for a squaw man. They don't say anything to his face, 'cause most people either don't want to embarrass him, or they're afraid of him." She sounded troubled. "I don't think he will ever marry her, but she thinks he will, if she gets with child."

Ian interrupted, "Now that I know how you feel about me, we'll take it step by step. Sure, we'll have problems, but we can face them."

If he meant to comfort her, he partially succeeded; still, she knew too well how little respect whites had for any taint of Indian blood. Nevertheless, her need of him was compelling.

"Ian, when summer comes I'll be taking the cattle out to pasture north of town. Will you meet me there?"

"No. I won't see you that way. Besides, I'll be working for the railroad by then. I'll come to your house properly. Your mother and Pete seem to like me; it's your Stepfather who has me buffaloed. I can't figure him out. He just seems to sit around, letting the rest of you support him."

"He's been that way as long as I can remember. He used to go on the buffalo hunts years ago, but there are no bison left. He dreams they'll come back and he can lead the old life. Even if it did happen, which it won't, he is too old to participate. It's sad. He traps a little and fishes in the summer when he gets the urge. It seems he's just lost interest in life except for drinking. Mother works on suds-row at the fort. She brings in most of the money. Margurite and I help too. We both work at Geroux's hotel after school is over. But from that money, we each have to pay two dollars a month to the school.”

Suddenly Susan hugged Ian tightly, squeezing her body against him, "Oh, Ian, I'm afraid to feel happy. People will keep us apart."

Gently pushing the long, dark hair from her face, Ian could see tears coursing down her cheeks.

"Like hell!"

Tugging his horse around, Ian held out a hand. "Step up behind the saddle and hang onto me." Mounting in front of her, he felt her arms cling around his waist as he nudged the gelding into a slow walk.

When the horse stopped in front of her house, Susan easily slipped to the ground. Blowing Ian a kiss, she ran to the house. He caught a glimpse of her mother's face at the window; then the curtain slid back into place.

Upon entering the door, Susan literally ran into her mother, who held out her arms. In the protective hug she heard her mother say, "I think he is a good man."

At the Roseau Crossing shack Eck Murphy awoke with a start, suddenly aware of loud, drunken conversation. The rancid odor of unwashed bodies, the sour smell of liquor and the odor of tobacco smoke were almost overpowering. The pain in his head was a familiar one. The doctor in Toronto had called it a migraine.

That was before they found his Father dead, beaten to death. Then they caught him -- said he had aggressive impulses, was ruthless and dangerous. They said he needed a long rest . . . tried to lock him in a nut house. Well, he fixed them good! No one would lock him up! The old ache was causing strange new sensations. It was as if he had a secret brother, an uncontrollable brother who wanted excitement and thrills. His brother was talking to him again, as he always did when the headaches came.

The pain in his shoulder was of a more recent origin. It throbbed constantly, even up to his eyes. Then it grew, ever to irritate the other ache in his head. He realized whoever had done that to him had nearly killed him. He remembered it had been last spring, near the end of May, close to Orillia, Ontario, and under a bridge. He had caught a girl there. His mind began to drift. He turned onto his back on the hard, narrow bunk and began rolling his head endlessly from side to side. It did nothing to relieve the pounding headache and the voice. His brother was talking again. The insisting voice was too much. He shouted aloud, "Shut up!"

His outburst turned the heads of the drinkers and evoked concern. One man touched his finger to his head, and then pointed to Murphy, "Eck’s dreaming again," he said.

Regaining control of himself, Eck extracted a plug of tobacco from his shirt pocket and bit off a chew. For a period he resigned himself to the drunken talk of his bunkmates. When working on the job, he found whistling drowned out his brother's voice. Chewing viciously on the hard plug tobacco seemed to help too.

There were ten of them confined in this shack at Roseau Crossing, ten men who waited for spring and further work on the railroad.

The pain began to pulse and with it came alien impulses. His thoughts turned to sexual fantasies, fanned into action by the voice. Swinging his feet to the floor and sitting up, Eck found his head spinning with imbalance. He realized the need for a woman, any female, preferably a young one. Not some old, diseased squaw; there were plenty of them available, but all those nearby were ugly as sin, greasy and smelly. Even they disliked his heavy body and fully bearded face. They put up with him for the money

He paid, but gave little satisfaction.

Pulling on his boots, Eck arose and reached for his coat. He paused at the door of the shack and glanced back at his companions. Few remained awake, and they were in a drunken, maudlin state. They would never miss him. Outside, the sky was clear and cold. A half-moon enabled him to see the cabins and tepees in the settlement around them. He drew in several deep breaths of the cold air in an effort to clear his head. For moments the pain seemed to fade; then it began to come on again, enough so that he wondered if it would hold off until he was back inside.

A door slammed across the way and a small figure appeared, turning north toward a distant cabin. He crossed the road, breaking into a fast walk to accost the person.

"Hey you!"

The figure stopped to turn questioningly as he approached. It was a young girl, who at first seemed unafraid. Upon overtaking the youngster, the man realized he had a prize, just what he wanted. The teenager backed away fearfully and turned to run. Quickly grasping her by the collar, Eck swung her around and delivered a vicious blow to her face. She collapsed.

Lifting her body, he carried her back inside the barn behind their shack. Minutes later, as he was pushing into her tightness, he suddenly heard voices and froze. Two men were conversing drunkenly in front of the barn door while they passed water. Moments later, he heard their crunching footsteps as they returned to the shack. Hearing the door close, he casually finished with the girl. His headache had eased and he was enjoying pleasurable sensations. Another insatiable urge came over him and he began again. She was becoming conscious now, coughing and emitting choking noises. To quiet her he slipped his hands to her throat.

His brother's urge came upon him again. He'd never be caught! He'd never be caught!

Minutes later, he peered outside the door to find all was quiet. Picking up the small body he carried it a quarter mile north of the settlement. Thrusting the young girl deeply into a snowdrift, he then raked snow over the body with his boot. He could feel his tortuous headache again throbbing as he stood to urinate. A pulsing thought came -- he had done something bad, but there was no remorse.

Returning to the shack, he knew his companions had not missed him. The only three remaining awake were besotted. Removing his jacket and boots, he climbed back into his bunk. Again he could feel the biting inside his brain; it reminded him of others he had killed. Whores all – in Toronto, Peterborough and Lower Fort Garry. His thoughts again returned to the bridge east of Orillia. He remembered that she, too, had been young. Worst luck! He had her pealed and ready, then he had heard someone sliding down the creek-bank behind him. As he stood to fight, a slashing blow caught him on his neck and shoulder and he remembered nothing. By luck he had regained consciousness before dawn and skedaddled -- damn near bled to death too; he remembered it well.

The local whores hadn't been afraid of him at first, but now they all avoided him like the plague. Bell Stone's girls in Emerson, and Rosie's, in Pembina, were all-afraid of him; he liked to hear their moans and cries as he roughly pleasured himself. He left his marks. Crossing his hands behind his head, he gazed at the low ceiling of the shack. Bell had told him never to come back after he had beaten Minnie. Hell, I'll get even with her. I'll burn her out! Contemplation of his conquests haunted his memory as the ache again throbbed. He finally dozed off, lulled to sleep by the drunken conversation in the shack.

Three days before Christmas the Canadian Pacific Railroad closed its Winnipeg office for the holidays. Robert caught the stage to Emerson the next morning, only to find himself detained that night in the Town of Scratching River, just halfway to his destination. A blizzard had blown up, and the driver refused to continue on.

The next morning, after leaving the settlement, Robert reviewed in his mind his brief acquaintance with Mary. Had he committed himself too soon? After all, in his profession he hardly had time for a wife. Would the long hours he worked sour a marriage? A romance was fine, but was he really ready to settle down? Dare I risk it he asked himself? He had enjoyed varied successes with girls while attending university, having discovered sex at the young age of thirteen. At the time he realized his conquests were not always due to his looks. The fact that his parents were wealthy and important had been a factor. Occasionally mothers had thrust their daughters in his direction with hopes of matrimony.

His father had rarely disciplined him but had sometimes reproved his excessive energy and curiosity, because at times Robert missed meals while gallivanting around construction sites and iron works.

He had been tremendously attracted to Mary, more so than any girl he had previously known. Merely thinking of her aroused him. He knew this lust was ridiculous, knowing she would settle for nothing less than marriage. He was sure Mary was a virgin and he had always avoided them as he had certain of the young ladies back home, ladies who endeavored to entrap him.

The four-horse rig arrived at West Lynne early that afternoon, drawing up in front of the Hudson's Bay store. Upon recovering his valise from the top of the coach, Robert, accompanied by the three other passengers, entered the store to inquire about a ride to Emerson.

"Just hang around for a few minutes. Ed Vance from the livery will be here to pick you up. He charges ten cents apiece for the ride over to the Hutchinson House." The Hudson's Bay agent smiled. "It's too much money; but, on the other hand, it's a mighty cold walk."

Vance's cutter, pulled by a single horse, arrived shortly. It was devoid of the buffalo robes they had enjoyed in the stagecoach. When the cutter descended the hill to the icy surface of the Red River, Vance ordered them out, to climb the opposite hill on foot. Even so, it was all the single horse could manage, to pull the sleigh and baggage up the opposite slope. When all were at the top of the hill, they reloaded into the sleigh for the short ride to the hotel.

Robert's assigned room was small, containing only a bed, a dresser with a tarnished mirror and a commode. There were no hangers for his clothes, but several large nails protruded from one wall. Unpacking his valise, he critically examined his dress suit for wrinkles. Finding none, he laid it flat on the dresser top. Mary had written enthusiastically about their invitation to the fort ball and he had every intention of being a presentable escort.

After unpacking, he shrugged into a sweater and returned to the small hotel lobby. To one side a door led to a lunchroom. There were no customers present, but he seated himself to await service. Finally, becoming impatient, he walked into the kitchen. A young woman who was busy pealing potatoes looked up. "Supper isn't until six."

"Any chance of a sandwich now?" Robert smiled ingratiatingly.

"Will one of cold beef suit you?"

"That would be wonderful. I haven't eaten since we left Scratching River early this morning."

"Take a chair. It'll be a few moments. There's still coffee in the pot, but I'll have to reheat it." She looked at him as if asking his approval.

He nodded, and then asked, "Where do the McLarens live?”

"Aha! You mean Mary McLaren, don't you?"

"How did you guess? Are you clairvoyant?" He noted this girl had a saucy and pert look. He smiled at her.

"It’s just a wild guess. Mary is my friend and she mentioned a tall, handsome man who is to take her to the fort ball." She studied his face soberly. "You're going to have stiff competition, you know."

"I've already guessed that."

While waiting for his coffee, he noted she cast several glances at him from the serving window. Her inquisitiveness made him feel self-conscious.

After finishing the coffee and getting directions to the McLaren home, Robert followed the sleigh tracks south to the border road, and then turned east as directed. Approaching the frame house, he noted that it had never been painted. The barn behind the house seemed to be leaning against a huge stack of hay. To the side was a solid looking outdoor privy. Stepping up to the front door, he was about to rap when the door suddenly opened. There stood a small boy.

"Hello, Mike!"

The lad hesitated momentarily, as if puzzled, and then recognition set in. "You're Mary's friend. She's not here; she's at school."

Maggy suddenly appeared at the door. "Why, Robert! We've been expecting you. Come in and take off your coat. Mary will be home in about an hour. Patrick and Ian are in Pembina, but they'll be home for supper. There's just Jerold, Mike and me at home. Jerold is busy in the barn, but he'll be coming inside shortly."

She took his overcoat and motioned toward a bench by the kitchen table. "Mary has been looking forward to your visit. She's almost made us nervous wrecks with her anxiety. My heavens, it has been a long time since we parted and you continued on to Winnipeg."

"Only a bit over six months." He smiled as he seated himself at the table.

"Will you have tea or coffee?" Maggy lifted the stove lid and began adding wood to the fire.

"Tea would be fine. I had a quick sandwich and coffee at the hotel."

"Me, too! Me, too, Ma."

Maggy looked at her youngster fondly. "Yes, you, too, Mike. You can have tea. But it's Mother, not Ma."

The water in the kettle was beginning to boil when Jerold came in from the barn. Seeing Robert at the table, he smiled. "Be with you in a moment. I've got to put these smelly clothes in the back shed." Apologetically, he stepped back into the entry to remove his outer garments.

Re-entering the room, Jerold approached Robert and offered his hand. Maggy noted his politeness with pride, thinking, we may be poor Scots-Irish, but we're proper people.

Shortly after four o'clock they heard thumping sounds at the back door, then the sound of an outer door opening and closing. The inner door to the kitchen swung open, admitting Mary. She gasped aloud when she saw Robert. He barely had time to stand before she flew into his arms. Their wild hug turned to a lengthy kiss.

Maggy felt a sense of embarrassment at her daughter's boldness, but Jerold and Mike smiled their approval.

As the couple broke the embrace, the ecstatic looks on their faces said it all. They were oblivious to anyone else in the room.

"How long can you stay?" Mary backed away at arm's length.

"I have five days off. I've already wasted two getting here."

Mary quickly calculated. "Oh, no! You won't be here for the New Year's Eve party in Emerson."

"No. I'll be back in Winnipeg by then. At least I'm here for your Christmas Ball. And, as I wrote you, I'm to work on the Selkirk-Emerson line this spring. You'll probably be sick of me before the summer is over." He moved forward to grasp her hands firmly.

"We'll worry about that later!" She was exuberant. Turning to her mother, she said, "Mother, I want to take Robert downtown to meet my friends. I'll be back in time to help with supper." She was already re-buttoning her coat.

Maggy was almost envious of Mary's excitement. "Its roast beef for tonight and it's already in the oven. You two be back in time for supper. Pat and Ian should be home by then."